John Olsen Reviews the Stories in The Shadow #82
Review written and copyrighted by John Olsen; used with permission
“Spy Ring” was originally published in the April 1, 1940 issue of The Shadow Magazine. Foreign agents encircled the United States, threatening our national security, but they couldn’t enmesh The Shadow!
Here’s a pretty average Shadow tale, by 1940 standards, raised a bit by The Shadow’s battle against foreign spies. It’s all that cool spy stuff that takes a routine pulp mystery and lifts it to the next level. So while I won’t say I loved this story, I did like it a lot. Parts of it are predictable. I knew from the beginning who the mastermind would turn out to be. And when the big reveal occurred in the final chapter, there were no surprises. In pulp mysteries of this sort, it’s always the person you’d least expect... which automatically puts them at the top of list of suspects. There were no surprises at the end, just the satisfaction of seeing every spy either dead or on their way to prison.
In 1940, the entire world was not at war, yet, but much of it was. If you believed Hollywood, the radio and pulps, spies were everywhere. So it’s not much of a surprise that author Walter Gibson had The Shadow battling them, too. The story could easily have been changed to a non-spy story by simply making a few minor modifications. It could have been a criminal mastermind seeking great wealth. But by just changing his minions into spies, and changing his targets into government plans, you have a spy story. And that’s what we have here.
The spy ring is known as the Ilsa. Some say the letters stand for the “International League of Secret Agents.” Or it could just be a word in some language. Whatever the exact meaning of the word Ilsa, to The Shadow it means danger. It means murder. It means treason. It means a threat to the American way!
The Ilsa is out to get secret fortification plans! The United States government has decided to fortify many islands off the shores of North America. Work is being done by four different corporations. The foundation work will be done by the Titania Construction Co. The airplane hangars, runways, and munitions storage facilities will be designed by the Superior Engineering Corp. The island channels will be improved by the Cyclops Dredging Co. The Apex Airplane Co. has designed a special type of landing gear ideally suited for the special planes that will be stationed on these islands.
The Ilsa spy ring wants to obtain the secret plans from each of these companies. Not for any particular nation, however. Ilsa is composed of an international group of spies from various nations. They sell their work to the highest bidder. When they have succeeded in obtaining all four groups of secret plans, they will sell them to the nation which offers them the most money.
Only The Shadow can stop them. He’s aiding the federal government in tracking down the mysterious head of the spy ring. Vic Marquette heads the G-man team. Senator Ross Releston has come from Washington to assist. And Lamont Cranston has been brought in because of his tie to The Shadow. Both the senator and Marquette have suspected in the past that Lamont Cranston might actually be The Shadow. Or perhaps he’s just a contact of The Shadow. Either way, they are proposing an actual alliance between the government investigators and The Shadow. This time, he is no lone wolf. He is working with the law!
The Shadow doesn’t let them down. He’s even ahead of them! He’s been trailing members of the Ilsa long before they were aware of the threat. And now as the two forces join together, it’s a frenzied battle of the forces of good over the forces of international evil.
There’s a lot of cool spy stuff used in this story. There’s a special knife used by members of the Ilsa that’s coated with a curious lacquer of obscure Oriental origin to which fingerprints don’t cling. Something like an early version of Teflon, apparently. Secret agents for the Ilsa carry their hidden identification in cards like drivers’ licenses, hat checks, and railroad tickets. The hidden printing and secret signatures only show up under a portable ultraviolet lamp.
Moe Shrevnitz’s cab was not only geared for high speed, it could completely change its appearance. Its lights could be altered; the angle of its spare tire tilted; even the ornamental strips along its doors could be changed - all by the operation of devices in the driver’s seat. A real James Bond type of car!
One of my favorites is the secret recording made between the grooves of a record. In these days of CDs and mp3s, we tend to forget the design of old records. Remember, they consisted of a single spiraling groove. In this story, spies insert a second groove spiraling in between the main one. This groove starts about an inch in from the outside edge of the record, so that no one playing the record from the beginning will ever hear the secret recording. But spies placing the needle in the center of the record, can hear the hidden track with vital secret information. Pretty clever!
And then there’s the microfilm that’s transported by Velma Thane, our Mata Hari of the story, who carries them on her fingernails, painted beneath a layer of bright red polish. Later, those microdots are placed beneath postage stamps, and mailed to spy headquarters. That may not sound original now, but back in 1940 it was considered hot stuff!
Oh yes, we have a female villain. That’s quite unusual for Walter Gibson. Usually, the females in his stories were innocent victims. But if you’re going to have a spy story, you’ve just gotta have a Mata Hari included in the group. So Gibson introduces Velma Thane, a vamp who tries to trap Lamont Cranston as being The Shadow. But The Shadow pulls in his own female agent, Myra Reldon, who you’ll remember from other Shadow stories. And together, they pull Miss Thane’s fangs. (Margo Lane hadn’t been introduced to the pulp magazine series, yet, which explains why she wasn’t used instead of Miss Reldon.)
This is another of those stories that features the two Lamont Cranstons. The real one; the globe-trotter and millionaire. And the disguised one; the one who’s really The Shadow. The real Cranston substitutes for The Shadow and helps him build an alibi. As the story explains, he rather likes being The Shadow’s double; he enjoys the partnership during this campaign against the Ilsa.
It’s a good thing that the “real” Cranston is back from his overseas travels, and can help out here. Vic Marquette and Senator Releston both have suspected that Cranston might be The Shadow in the past. So it really helps here when both Cranston and The Shadow appears in the same room at the same time. Helps put those nagging doubts to rest. At least, until next time...
A couple of final comments. In this story, The Shadow climbs the outside wall of a ten-foot office building with his bare hands. For some unexplained reason, he abandons the use of his rubber climbing discs. It’s also pointed out that he employs persuasive ways of obtaining answers from captured spies, methods more subtle than any third degree. But what those exact methods are, is left to our imagination.
In other stories readers are told about The Shadow’s flashlight with colored lenses. He can signal his agents using blinks of different colors. In this tale, that is expanded upon, a bit. We are told that “it was a special code, requiring many less blinks than Morse, because the use of colors eliminated the need of dashes.” In other stories, it always seemed to be just a general signal. A red blink meant for the agents to stay put; a green one meant to come on. But now we see that the blinks can form just about any message, more compactly than Morse code. New information... and kinda neat, too!
Agents appearing in this story are Harry Vincent, Moe Shrevnitz, Clyde Burke, Cliff Marsland and Hawkeye, as well as female agent Myra Reldon. As mentioned above, both Cranstons appear. And Vic Marquette represents the forces of law and order.
And are our villains Germans? Well, they don’t come right out and say so. At this point in history, the Germans were our friends. At least technically. But several of our main spies have German sounding names and speak in a guttural tone. That was probably all the clues that Gibson could put into the novels without being editorially censored.
I enjoyed this story and found it a nice way to spend a couple of hours with The Shadow. There are better Shadow tales; there are also worse ones. This one has enough special features to keep you interested, and keep the familiar type of plot from getting too stale.
“The White Column” was published in the March 15, 1941 issue of The Shadow Magazine. The Shadow battles saboteurs! Five Nazi agents parachute from the sky to cripple the rearmament efforts of a free America and soften her up for invasion by land, sea and air. A secret vigilante organization is formed. They call themselves the White Column.
But there was trouble with this secret White Column. It was designed to attract honest men who sincerely wanted to rid the country of Fifth Columnists. But the White Column was not a patriotic vigilante society at all. The White Column was actually a front for the saboteurs, organized by the Fifth Columnists. Patriotic citizens were being exploited by the very foes they were trying to punish! Only The Shadow could take on and defeat these foes of democracy.
This Shadow pulp novel was, quite probably, the best Shadow adventure published in 1941. It’s got mile-a-minute thrills. It’s got flag-waving action. It’s got a mystery mastermind who controls the five foreign agents. It’s got amazing death traps. It’s got sinister Nazi spies. Death. Destruction. Blood and guts. Whew! It just doesn’t get much better.
The United States was not at war when the story was written, in July of 1940. Nor was it at war when this story was published in March of 1941. But World War II had already started in Europe, and the USA was destined to join in the war before the end of 1941. So, although technically America wasn’t at war when this pulp hit the newsstands, the flames of war were being fanned all over the world, and this story reflects those hot emotions. This story is quite a patriotic one; a real flag-waver!
As the story opens, a heavy transport plane carries enemy saboteurs from the hidden submarine in the Atlantic to over a desolate section of the Adirondack Mountains. Five army-trained specialists parachute out over the region in a raging snowstorm. They are here to meet up with their mysterious leader, and to begin their reign of sabotage and terror.
Now, it should be pointed out that nowhere in this story are the antagonists identified as being from Germany. The word “Nazi” is never mentioned. The country was not at war, yet, and the publishers had no intention of heating up already-tense relations with a foreign government, and precipitating the nation prematurely into armed conflict. But there’s little doubt of the country of origin of these killers and spies. They speak in a guttural tone. They use certain German expressions, such as “der tag” for “the day.” And they salute stiffly, exclaiming “Death to Democracy!” Yup, there’s no doubt who we are actually booing and hissing in this story.
Anyway, the five saboteurs make their way through the snow storm to a mountain cabin. Along the way, they mercilessly kill several innocent men and burn their dead bodies to fine dust with a strange thermite-type device. At the cabin, they meet their American masterspy to lay their devious plans.
The Shadow, in his black sanctum in Manhattan, reads vague newspaper accounts of minor, unexplained events. One deals with mysterious rumors and happenings in the Adirondack region. People had reported hearing the buzzing of an airplane motor during a night snowstorm. Two local hunters had disappeared that same night.
The Shadow recognizes the significance of these reports. Every plane in the East had been grounded that night by the snowstorm. Both commercial and privately-owned ships all had been accounted for. No plane smaller than a transport would have dared to fly in that snowstorm. Where had it come from? Where had it vanished? To The Shadow, this mystery carried an ominous tone. One that demanded investigation.
The Shadow shows up at the mountain lodge, and we get a couple exciting chapters where he pierces their plans while in disguise as Lamont Cranston. Plenty of sneaking around at night, battles in the snow and suspicious characters galore. The saboteurs escape, and begin their journey to the mid-west where they plan on destroying the munitions factories there. The Shadow follows!
Among the evil spies, the word is out. Death to Lamont Cranston. His disguise has been penetrated, so he must follow the sinister gang to the mid-west town of Oakmont using his true identity of Kent Allard. Oakmont is where the US Army has factories churning out ammunition and other armaments. America, alarmed at overseas aggressions, is arming herself for defense. These factories are a prime target for the saboteurs.
Oakmont is a hive of government activity. In the factories here, newly designed bombsights are being manufactured, bombsights that will revolutionize the art of aerial attack in warfare. Special machine-gun ammunition to be used in new pursuit planes and bombers is being made. New aeroplanes and special fuel are being manufactured here, as well. This is where the saboteurs will strike... again and again!
Now to make things worse, the Fifth Columnists plant seeds of suspicion upon The Shadow. They frame him for the acts of sabotage. And they form a patriotic group of American citizens, The White Column. Yes, deluded American citizens are misled by enemies of their own country, and end up fighting against their beloved country. Production of war materials is grinding to a halt.
Workmen at the munitions plant are afraid to go near their jobs, for fear of attack. There are threats of lynching and worse. The rumor is all over town that the police have failed and it’s time for loyal citizens to take the law into their own hands. It ruins the morale of the workmen! Some of them have already quit. They’re afraid they may be accused of being spies.
The Shadow really has his job cut out for him, in this thrill-packed story. He has to neutralize the enemy saboteurs. He has to unmask the mysterious hooded leader of the spies. He has to fight The White Legion, composed of patriotic Americans who have been duped into believing The Shadow is a traitor. And he has to save the fuel depot, the squadron of new bombers, and the secret bomb-sight plans... as well as the lives of thousands of innocent factory workers.
The Shadow really takes a beating in this story. He’s constantly in battle. There are insidious death traps to defeat. Underground headquarters to invade. He’s knocked out, stabbed, shot, poison gassed and caught in several explosions. How he makes it to the finish line is a miracle.
This terrific Shadow pulp tale was written by Theodore Tinsley, if you haven’t guessed by now. Tinsley’s interpretation of The Shadow was a more powerful one than was Walter Gibson’s. But Tinsley’s Shadow also got wounded a lot more. Tinsley’s affinity to underground headquarters is another tip-off. This story also features a female villain, which is another Tinsley earmark. And, then, there is Tinsley’s attraction to blood and gore.
There are a few scenes in this story that Walter Gibson would have toned down a bit. But since Tinsley was at the typewriter, we get a bit more graphic violence. After a brutal battle aboard a thundering freight train, two of The Shadow’s adversaries are killed horribly. “One had been cut to pieces under the thundering wheels of the freight. The other had been hurled against the tunnel wall. Most of his head was gone.” Yup, that’s the Tinsley touch. This story is filled with those things.
The Shadow gets a little assistance from his agents in this story. Contact-man Burbank appears briefly, as does Harry Vincent. Reporter Clyde Burke gets the biggest role, by far. He gets bounced around quite a bit, and gets to be rescued by The Shadow at least once.
The Shadow appears as himself, in black cloak and slouch hat. He also appears as his true personality, Kent Allard. There’s his oft-used disguise as millionaire Lamont Cranston. And he dons a disguise, as an old shambling man, a worker at the munitions factory. Clyde Burke gets to disguise himself as a worker and go undercover as well. The disguise is complements of The Shadow’s work, of course.
We do learn some interesting things about Kent Allard, in this story. Since the danger of war from abroad had transformed America, Allard had become a well-known personage. He was the foremost aviator, who had won an affectionate hold on the hearts of his countrymen. Allard is a high officer in the air reserve, and presides over the Defense Committees as a personal representative of the president. Pretty impressive. Ponder on what might have happened, had the president known of Allard’s other identity as The Shadow!
Whew! What a story. I’ve never read another Shadow story like it. This is a terrific war-time story with action in abundance. It’s The Shadow vs. (unnamed) Nazi Germany!
The emotional last page of the story finds The Shadow flying his dive bomber back over the American coastline after bombing the bejeebers out of the enemy’s submarine. The sun is rising behind him as he flies over an American coast-defense fortress. The American flag flutters upward, snapping briskly in the wind. The Shadow dips his plane in salute to the flag of the land he loves. And with that patriotic image, the story ends.
I can only imagine the mind-set of young men of enlistment age who had finished reading this pulp magazine novel. More than a few must have been motivated to run out and sign up at their local Army Recruitment Office. This story does get the blood boiling.
This story gets my hearty recommendation. Find it. Read it. Enjoy it. And don’t be surprised if you feel compelled to haul out the old Stars and Stripes and hoist it up the flagpole.